What is the overall mood or tone of "Harrison Bergeron"?

The overall tone of "Harrison Bergeron" can be described as detached and sardonic. Vonnegut reveals his contempt for legislated equality throughout the story by utilizing a sarcastic, candid tone to describe the completely uniform United States. The mood of the story changes from curious to frustrated to hopeful to despairing as the plot unfolds.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles
The tone of a story refers to the author's attitude towards the subject and is conveyed through the writer's word choice and point of view. The overall tone of Vonnegut's celebrated short story "Harrison Bergeron" can be described as sarcastic, detached, and candid. Vonnegut displays a sardonic tone in the opening sentence of the story by writing that "everybody was finally equal."

Vonnegut's sardonic tone is also revealed when he writes, "It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard." By using the words "finally" and "all right," Vonnegut reveals his sarcastic view of the Constitution's stance on equality and conformity. The bleak situation should provoke outrage, but the citizens have passively accepted the harmful policies, which contributes to Vonnegut's satire and irony.

Vonnegut also seems to mock George and Hazel's argument regarding the nature of handicaps while failing to comprehend the larger issue of oppressed personal freedoms, which displays his contempt for the idea that equality can be legislated. Vonnegut also candidly describes Harrison's tragic death in a detached tone that mirrors Hazel's forgetful reaction. Vonnegut's tone not only displays his contempt for legislated equality, but also reveals his cynical view of humanity's motivation to cultivate equality.

Mood refers to the emotions and feelings a reader experiences throughout a story. Unlike the tone of a narrative, the mood of a story can change. Initially, the mood of "Harrison Bergeron" is intriguing and evokes the reader's curiosity as he/she attempts to imagine a completely uniform United States, where people are forced to wear handicaps. The mood then shifts to one of sympathy towards George and Hazel. The reader experiences empathy for the Bergerons, whose extraordinary fourteen-year-old son is in prison.

Once the news bulletin appears on the screen and Harrison takes over the station, the reader experiences a feeling of suspense and intrigue. When Harrison strips off his handicaps and chooses his empress, the mood becomes exciting and hopeful. Suddenly, Diana Moon Glampers arrives and kills Harrison and his empress, which leaves the reader feeling angry, disturbed, and upset. George and Hazel's forgetful reaction to the tragic death of their son shifts the mood to one of despair and gloom.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

While the tone of "Harrison Bergeron" is detached and sarcastic, the mood changes to reflect the reader's response to the action—it starts out curious, builds to a crescendo of excitement and hope as Harrison makes his stand, and then bursts into resigned dismay after he's stopped.

The tone of the story is reflected in the way the author writes. Kurt Vonnegut takes a detached tone in his writing, describing the situation as if it's normal—when, of course, it isn't normal for a reader. He explains that society made everyone equal by instituting handicaps that kept people from excelling in any way. It made things fair for everyone.

The sarcastic tone comes largely from the ludicrous way people have been made equal; Vonnegut doesn't directly criticize it, leaving the reader to make their own decisions. There's also a sardonic tone with the way Vonnegut writes Hazel and George. George argues against Hazel's desire for him to lighten his handicaps just a little at home—saying that it would return society to the dark ages when no one was equal.

The reader's mood starts from a place of curiosity as Vonnegut describes the society and the handicaps that George has: a loud sound that goes through an earpiece every few minutes to keep him from being able to think clearly and dozens of pounds of buckshot in a bag around his neck. His wife, Hazel, doesn't have these. Vonnegut exposes this society through George, Hazel, and their television program. The novel situation arouses curiosity in a reader—even as the reader knows this is not a healthy society.

When Harrison bursts into the room on television and disrupts the ballet, the quick action and his desire for freedom cause the reader to experience hope alongside him—which leads to excitement. The question of whether he'll change things keeps the reader excited throughout Harrison's display. The action rises when the ballerina joins him and the musicians begin to play with skill.

The reader's excitement and hope are cut short when Diana Moon Glampers comes in and quickly kills Harrison and the ballerina. Dismay is tempered with resignation when George and Hazel can no longer see what's happened, because the television tube burns out after Harrison is killed. The reader sees that nothing has changed, as even Harrison's parents forget and ignore what happened.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Mood refers to the emotions a story evokes in the reader; tone refers to the author's attitude about the subject matter that comes through in the writing. Tone will usually remain constant in a story while the mood can change as the plot progresses.

The mood of the story begins with the reader feeling sympathetic toward the Bergerons and then frustrated by the ridiculous "handicaps" that their society forces on smart, beautiful, strong, or talented people. The mood becomes excited and suspenseful when Harrison appears, proclaims himself Emperor, and tears off his handicaps. Readers then become hopeful, and the mood changes to light and joyous during Harrison's dance with the ballerina. However, when Diana Moon Glampers shoots the two "criminals" dead, the mood becomes serious and dark. Readers feel sadness for Hazel, as she has seen the death of her son on live TV but cannot even figure out what happened. Readers may feel angry or hopeless at the end of the story when George and Hazel return to their monotonous daily routine of "equality." 

The tone Vonnegut uses in the story is resigned and sardonic. The sentence "It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn't think about it very hard" shows an acceptance of the society the Bergerons live in. Situations that should provoke outrage are presented calmly. However, the reader can pick up on a sardonic tone; there is a sense of irony and satire behind some of the words. When Vonnegut writes, "Hazel, as a matter of fact, bore a strong resemblance to the Handicapper General, a woman named Diana Moon Glampers," readers understand he is mocking both Hazel and the H-G by that comparison. The vacuous conversation between George and Hazel that occurs at the end, after their 14-year-old son has just been killed, is highly ironic because the couple, or at least the narrator, should be furious about the event.

The mood in the story changes from frustration to hope to anger to despair as the plot unfolds. The tone remains resigned and satirical throughout.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team